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June 22, 2006

Making Choices and Sacrifices

Seema started the session with a beautiful bhajan.

I checked in with a reflection I have had for some time now: I said that when I observe my actions, it is becoming clear that I am constantly evaluating every person and every task to check whether the person and/or the task is worth the effort. I take it to be natural that the external condition is responsible to a large extent for my level of commitment, enthusiasm etc. And hence, I am at my best only when the external condition is highly favorable. Once I am in this mode of engagement, if anything goes wrong, it seems perfectly natural to look for something external to blame (and I usually find one!).

I am wondering what would it take for me to bring the same level of commitment, enthusiasm, creativity etc to everyone I am with and to all my efforts?

Jay said that perhaps it is natural to be selective in our commitments because we have only so much energy and having the same level of commitment towards everyone and everything could be exhausting.

Vijay said that while it might be prudent to select where to put our energy, our biases do play a role in being fully committed to even that which we have willingly chosen. For example, one might promise to oneself not to get angry but might not want to practice it with everyone (because not everyone is worthy of that experiment).

Similarly, I certainly want to be honest, be fully present, be open, etc to whatever I commit to. But in practice, I choose only a few of those commitments to which I will fully offer all my faculties and capacities. Perhaps this selectiveness has more to do with selfish agendas and less to do with how much energy I have.

Vijay checked in and shared a quote:

�A spiritual person is one who does not blame others for his problems.�

Many people resonated with that quote and Deepak shared a corollary to that quote that says, �A spiritual person is one who does everything from his own choice.�

I asked, �If a spiritual person holds himself fully responsible for all his problems and claims to do everything from his own choice, then is there something called sacrifice?�

I asked this question because, from my perspective, throughout history, spiritual people have been portrayed as people who made great personal sacrifices. While no one forced them to make those sacrifices (and they did choose to do whatever they did), should their work be regarded no more than the work of any other person who tended to his own well being?

Manju said that her understanding of the definition of sacrifice is: Work done specifically for the benefit for others or service work.

She said that she does not consider service work as sacrifice. She said that the doer is experiencing a spiritual joy and is thus motivated to continue with his effort. While service is done from one's personal passion or inner drive onlookers/others (or the receivers) might label/judge it as "sacrifice".

The benefit of service work to others is a positive side-effect. The recipients are welcome to receive it with gratitude and may choose to be inspired to follow. Whereas, the doer's spiritual gain and motivation would remain unaffected by the outcome.

Manju further said that, for example, parents or mothers do "No Sacrifice" for their kids. It is a continuous enriching experience that makes parenting a higher priority over the other more obvious potential material gains. Many parents are skilled to do both or bring about the balance between the pursuit of personal material gains and parenting.

The other oft repeated example is Mahatma Gandhi. In Gandhi's own words, "I am experimenting the truths as I perceive them. Please do not follow me, for I can hardly lead myself. I am no Mahatma." I respect and (almost jealous) of Gandhiji's self confidence to be able to follow his personal drive. He was connected with himself. But he did not sacrifice. My last example are the "teachers". The action itself calls for a higher form of giving as compared to parenting. It is inspirational and God's work, and it is originated from the parmatma that resides in the teacher... It cannot be done with the "intention to sacrifice".

Others too echoed similar views.

Prasad said that there are times, when he does something in order to do good, the good deed becomes secondary and HE who is doing the good becomes primary (in importance). His need to be seen as �a person who does good things� then became the main motivation and the value of his contribution is lost. People pick up such vibes easily. Other times, Prasad said, he does what comes naturally without thinking about the effect of his action. He just does what is appropriate and walks away from it without taking anything personal.

At times, he said that it surprised him that others got more value when he did things with no apparent attention but in an easy and effortless manner. In other words, there was no sacrifice or a major contribution from Prasad�s side but it was a huge value as experienced by others. These experiences made him think that sacrifice is something that others experience more than the doer himself/herself. When you just do what is appropriate without any focus on personal benefit, you don�t look at what you did as sacrifice at all. When you do think you have to sacrifice, you do it because you valued the contribution more than what you are losing out. In that respect also, it is �selfishness� that allowed you to do sacrifice, said Prasad.

Vijay said that if he looks at his own action as a sacrifice, then doing more and more of the same action would build a sense of personal loss (look, how much I am sacrificing). Whereas, if he considers his actions (however disadvantageous it is to himself) as a personal choice (for whatever reasons), then he is freed from accumulating losses.

Overall, everyone seemed to be saying that sacrifice, whatever it means, is a social construct that glorifies that which really is an act of choice � the nature of this choice being nothing more than the nature of any other choice.

I raised different questions to explore whether there are other ways to look at sacrifice.

Earlier, Manju said that the receiver could receive the service with gratitude and even be inspired by it. But I kept thinking whether there is more to an act of service (specially one that puts the doer in a great disadvantage or even harm) than gratitude and inspiration. If not, then along with sacrifice, we also have to sweep under the social carpet feelings like indebt-ness, feeling obligated, feeling dutiful etc (from the receiver�s point of view).

Prasad felt that sacrifice leads to guilt, pride and shame more than gratitude, joy and freedom. Sacrifice has more to do with duty, obligation and a no-choice state rather than meaningful choice. Spiritually, more focus you have on sacrifice, more you get caught in the web. When you let go of what has happened (whether it is because of you or others), then you grow. It does not mean that sacrifice has no value. It just should not be glorified because it is connected with the role of a person instead the of action itself.

I thought about the value of sacrifice after the session. Sacrifice, even if it is a social construct (and not a natural feeling), seems to help a deeper purpose.

The way I understand sacrifice, it is to consider others� well-being over and above ones own well-being. To hold this consideration one must step out of ones identity. And stepping out of ones identity, as I gather from most spiritual literature, is the first step towards self-realization. So, the doer could indeed consider ones action as a sacrifice and be on his way to his next stage of evolution if, and it is a big IF, he does not use such an action to inflate his own ego and thereby achieve the just the opposite objective.

Is it valid to look at sacrifice, from the receiver�s point of view as a means to honor the doer?

Is it valid to look at sacrifice, from the doer�s point of view, as a vehicle to transcend identity?

Or is it valid to look at sacrifice as a social construct that has its limited use (to inspire service) but is also a double-edged sword that could inflate the doer�s ego and force the receiver to feel obligated?

Or is sacrifice a mere space-holder into which we could put whatever meaning we want to put?

I think it will be useful to create a shared-meaning from these questions. And that exercise, I guess would require more than questions. It would require an intention to put aside all definitions we have for the word sacrifice and start from scratch.

Prasad looked at my reflections after the session and this is what he has to say:

If you define sacrifice as considering others well being over and above your own, what is your underlying intention? Why are you sacrificing yourself � is it because there is no alternative but to give up your legitimate need or to get name, fame and recognition? It is not the action that makes a difference but also the intention. In Gita they talk about karma tyaga and karma phala tyaga. Giving up something is easy but giving up the result of your action is even more important.

Similarly, stepping out of your identity is good. Letting go of ones ego is also good. The key is why are you doing it? If you are doing it because you want to get some result � even if it is for gaining self realization or getting to heaven through acquiring Punya, is selfish. In other words, if you are feeling that you are holier than others because you are sacrificing your needs and putting others needs first � then it is more of psychological issue than spiritual evolution.

By the way, the receiver might feel gratitude and might feel the need to honor the donor. It is the receiver�s prerogative � not the donor�s right! For me, the whole idea of sacrificing in order to transcend identity is weird...

I would go with sacrifice having a limited and appropriate value and treat is as a double-edged sword. Finally, even though �to sacrifice� is to give up something, one could get attached to the idea of sacrifice itself. Let it go.

Posted by Ragu at June 22, 2006 10:11 AM